Wiping away an irritating grain of sand

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The Independent Online
HAVING said our prayers we were preparing to leave the city when Tyranicos, and with him his angry friends Maslodon, Apoplexos and Exophtalmos, sprang up before us like wild beasts to make us their prey. Glaucon and I shrank aside in fear. Then, speaking so that all could hear, he began.

'Listen here, Socrates,' Tyranicos said loudly, 'you awful little oik, everyone in Athens is fed up to the back teeth with your endless quibbling. You just goad people into saying things and then you cut them down. I am here to tell you that you are the most irritating individual in the Hellenic peninsula, and we've had enough]'

'Tyranicos,' I said, trembling, 'don't be hard on us. If we have gone astray our sin has assuredly not been deliberate. If the task is beyond our powers you clever people should rather pity than scold us. If I am to answer you I must first learn what you mean by irritating.

'For is it not the case that in any kind of fight is not he who is cleverest in striking also cleverest in warding off blows? And is not he who is cleverest in warding off disease also cleverest in implanting it without being found out? And therefore is not the man who is most irritating actually the most conciliatory in the city?

'Or in any event, that irritation may indeed be a most useful function in a democracy, as it is in an oyster. For the hard grain of sand that irritates the soft and formless flesh of the mollusc is thereby turned into a pearl and is greatly sought after by gentlemen of courtesy and worth.'

'Shut up Socrates,' Tyranicos said, 'you ghastly little tic.'

'I will agree to your requirements, as I should like to hear what you have to say.'

'What I've got to say is this. You think you're pretty clever. And you may or may not be, I've no ambitions in that way myself. But what I do know is that your cleverness is no good to you at all. And when you realise that, you'd better be prepared to pay the penalty for it.'

I said: 'The befitting penalty of ignorance is surely to learn from wisdom. I am assuredly ready to pay that penalty. In what way is cleverness, then, no good to people? Is this to say that goodness is more likely to come from stupidity than from cleverness? Following our argument, the best person will be the most bestial.'

'Exactly our own view.'

'Then you must mean something different from what you appear to mean. For goodness in a man is surely different from goodness in a beast?'

'Beasts are strong, dangerous, selfish, powerful and capable of slaughter,' Tyranicos said. 'And that's what we are. Philosophers, on the other hand, are egotistical and irritating, especially when they can't even define a table. Shut up Socrates, I haven't finished.

'It's not so bad that you can't define a table - after all, you're a philosopher and we don't expect you to be able to do anything useful. But what gets our goat is that you won't let anyone else define a table without saying, 'But that could be a stool', or, 'But that could be a trolley'. If you can't define a table properly, what chance are you going to have of defining virtue, or justice, or any of that other stuff you're always droning on about?

'Your whole method has been shown to be useless by the paradoxes you yourself create: 'If you're in a storm would you rather have a just man or a sea captain on board?' or, 'If you're on a horse would you rather have a just man or a riding teacher with you?'

'We know it's bilge because you lead the argument into some absurd paradox, such as saying just men are thieves. What you want is a just sea captain, or a just riding instructor. Justice and captaining boats are not mutually exclusive. Shut up, Socrates.

'But no, you use language to confuse better men than yourself, and if you're allowed to go on like this, in 2,000 years' time university students are going to waste their education playing linguistic idiots, asking questions such as: 'Why am I not a dolphin?' and ending up interviewing politicians as if they were Socratic philosophers.'

'That is certainly the case.'

'And that is something we won't tolerate. So drink this, or I'll cut off your arms and legs and pour it down your throat.'

'What, pray, is it?'

'They said it was hemlock at the shop, but how do you know it's hemlock until you've drunk it and died? Drink]'

So I drank it, and found that hemlock indeed it was.